ISIS Report 12/10/05
UN Cautions Over GM trees
Why there must be a moratorium on commercialisation of GM trees. Sam
A fully referenced
version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details here
GM trees untraceable
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has called for an international framework to
assess the safety of genetically modified (GM) trees
The increasing use of biotechnology
in the forestry sector has led to the spread of GM tree planting in at least
thirty-five countries. According to the FAO, most research is confined to the laboratories, but
many millions of GM trees have already been released in open field trials
in China, North America, Australia, Europe, and India, and to a lesser extent, South America and Africa.
Pierre Sigaud, FAO expert in forest genetics, warns against rushing
into GM tree commercialisation before conducting environmental risk assessments
according to national and international protocols. He says, "The issue goes
beyond country level since pollen flow and seed dispersal do not take account
of national boundaries and wood is a global commodity." To counteract cross-contamination
from GM trees to native stands, a robust framework to govern research and
application is essential.
Concerns about contamination from GM pollen and seed drift is shared by many
forestry experts and sustainability groups such as the Peoples Biosafety Organisation,
the Union of Ecoforesty, the Sustainable World Initiative and the Independent
Science Panel (see "Save our Forests" series SIS
26). Delegates from
these organisations lobbied hard for a moratorium on GM trees at the UN Forest
Forum in New York and the Meetings of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol
on Biosafety (COP/MOP-2) in Montreal earlier this year, and at the UN Forest
Forum in 2004 ("GM trees lost in China’s forests" SiS
Too little, too late?
The FAO interventions may
be too little, too late. In 2002, China became
the first country to release GM trees commercially. The Chinese State Forestry
Bureau is unable to trace the 1.4 million GM poplars (Populus nigra)
planted so far. Nine smaller field trials are underway with
Poplar –12 and Poplar –741, engineered to be infertile and pest resistant.
Plans to increase GM tree plantations in China are being considered. According
to the Chinese Academy of Forestry, environmental risks from the spread of seeds
and shoots from GM trees are unlikely. If this does happen shoots from sprouting
poplars would be eaten by passing cattle and sheep or destroyed by farming.
This "solution" implies that transgenic poplars are planted in populated areas,
not out of the way in parched and remote regions of northern China as a safety
measure against contamination, as stated.
The US Department of Energy were first to sequence the whole genome of the
poplar tree. Three other GM tree species dominate forestry biotechnology research:
pine, eucalyptus, and spruce (picea). These too have been widely planted in
open trials. Applications to field test GM trees in the US have risen by over
70 percent in fifteen years.
Nano-GM trees next
The Institute of Paper Science and Technology collaborated
with the US Department
of Energy’s Oak Ridge laboratory in their latest genetic engineering project
that uses carbon nanofibres to inject synthetic DNA into plant cells. Carbon
nanofibres and nanotubes are molecular
scale particles; one nanometre is a billionth of a metre; and one grain of sand is a million
This technique involves millions of carbon nanofibres grown sticking out from
silicon chips, on which strands of DNA are attached. Living cells are then thrown
against them and pierced by the fibres, injecting DNA into the cells. Following
this process, the synthetic DNA can then express new proteins and traits.
There has been a rush to commercialise carbon nanotubes since their invention
in 1991, but very few safety assessments have been carried out until quite recently,
when they were found in laboratory experiments to be highly toxic, producing
inflammation of the lungs of mice ("Nanotubes highly toxic", SiS
22). A Royal Society report in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineers
stated in July 2004 that there are uncertainties about the potential effects
on human health and the environment from manufactured ultrafine nano-particles
if they are released. A EU Nanoforum report likens the shapes of nanofibres
to asbestos fibres and by implication to the morbid effects of asbestos on human
A NASA study reported inflammation of lungs to be more severe than in cases
of silicosis, a respiratory disease caused by breathing in silica dust. A European
Commission report chronicles the hazards of nanotechnology in detail assisted
by ISP toxicologist Dr Vyvyan Howard (see also "Nanotox", SiS
21). Mapping out Nano Risks, explicitly recommends that genetic modification
using nano-technology should be limited to micro-organisms, "for which containment
is possible." Nano-GM of larger organisms such as plants and animals, which
cannot be contained, must be avoided.
Dr Richard Smalley, a Nobel laureate and chairman of
Carbon Nanotechnology Inc, has ignored these early warnings and is adamant
that his technique poses no threat to health. He said, "We are confident
there will prove out no heath hazards, but this toxicology work continues."
Micropropagation produces clones
Researchers in India use "micropropagation" to clone plants
from tiny pieces of tissues. Micropropagation is a method of in vitro vegetative multiplication
that bypasses sexual reproduction and allows selected individuals to be precisely replicated
in vast numbers. The production of millions of identical genetically engineered
plants constitutes the largest area, 34 percent, of experimental biotechnology
activities in forestry throughout sixty-four countries.
The ultimate goal of this research is to produce patented
manufactured seeds from clones of "model species" that will enable the quick
and easy global delivery of GM tree products.
Negative impact of monoculture plantations
What environmental impact has replacing diverse native forests with monoculture
plantations had? In Brazil, ecosystems and traditional ways of life are threatened
by water guzzling tree plantations that pollute and destroy clean water, habitats,
medicinal plants and sacred realms that intrinsically link all living systems
("GM trees the ultimate threat", SiS
26) (see box).
A Brazilian government project to sequence the entire
genome of the eucalyptus tree is financed by companies that topped a poll
representing the worst carbon sink project at the COP9 conference in Milan
in 2003. The FAO however, misguidedly
describes the "Genolyptus" project in Brazil as "cutting edge
The Brazilian Network Against the Green Desert and their partner the Latin
American Network Against Monoculture Tree Plantations have designated every
21 September as National Tree Day since 2004, in support of rural communities
that have been displaced, destroyed or exploited by monoculture plantations.
In Chile, around one hundred indigenous
Mapuche Indians face trial and prison, due to their actions against forestry
No future for GM trees
The FAO surveyed 65 countries involved in forest biotechtology, and their responses gave undue emphasis to the perceived benefits and future of GM trees.
Of over four hundred questionnaires sent out, forty-nine responded, of which
twenty three had conducted research on GM trees. Respondents felt that the
cost of GM trials, intellectual property rights, and regulations were significant
obstacles to the future of GM trees. Consumer rejection and unease with GM
products were also cited as problems.
Benefits of GM trees were
perceived as easier pulping methods and reduced use of chemicals for the timber industry, pest and
disease resistance, phyto-remediation of mercury in soil, secondary compounds
to pharmaceuticals, and potential to withstand extreme environmental conditions
such as drought and heat. All of these perceived benefits are not without problems and require
many years of careful biological and environmental assessment before commercialisation
could be justified (see box). Benefits
to human health scored lowest of all.
The final consensus was that forestry biotechnology excluding genetic modification
is far less costly and requires much less regulation than traditional means
of tree improvement. The FAO’s proposed framework to assess the safety of GM
trees therefore must acknowledge the megadiversity of existing forests and the
increasing trend towards recognizing the benefits of multiple uses of forests
that preserves that diversity ("Multiple uses of forests", SiS
The FAO should support the global moratorium on further releases of GM trees
that has been already launched by a coalition of civil society organisations
and also ban the creation of GM trees by means of carbon nanotubes or other
Why not GM trees?
- Break with the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety
– the first international law to control transportation of Living
Modified Organisms (LMO’s) across national boundaries
- Disrupt ecosystems and pose similar environmental,
health and economic risks as GM crops, but on a larger scale
- Replace and threaten
natural biodiverse forests that are crucial to stabilising climate
and regulating rainfall
- Produce faster growing
trees that speed up the return of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere
and use up much more water
- When used to phyto-remediate
land actually re-locate soil mercury from contaminated sites in the
south and deposit them in the north. And return expelled mercury to
the soil in its original toxic state
- Manipulate synthetic
genes and toxins to alter seed and flowering production posing threats
to human and animal health, as well as natural biodiversity
- Increase productivity
for timber and pulp in monoculture plantations that destroy natural
habitats and rural communities which depend on native forests for
food and a multiplicity of other uses
- Less fibrous content
of trees (lignin) reduces strength, resistance to pests, and disease.
Increased lignin leads to a build-up of undigested plant material
in the soil.
Sources: Save our Forests series, Science
in Society 2005,
issue 26 p 14-24